Sabbath Days and Extinguished Stars: The Life and Work of Chaim Grade
With Justin Cammy, David Fishman, and Joseph Berger
Chaim Grade (1910-1982) was one of the most influential and celebrated Yiddish writers of post-Holocaust Europe and America. An author of poetry, fiction, and memoir, Grade explored the world of traditional and ordinary Jews in his hometown of Vilna, a city which, upon observing its destruction during the Holocaust, he left for America in 1948. After Grade’s death in 1982, his wife Inna Hecker Grade became protective of her late husband’s writings and reputation, effectively closing the door on public discussion about him or updated translations into English. This lecture series, filmed at the Center in 2012, explores Grade’s life and work from the perspective of three speakers: Joseph Berger, the New York Times reporter who covered the death of Grade’s wife in 2010 and the ensuing controversy over rights to newly-discovered manuscripts; Justin Cammy, a literature scholar at Smith College; and David Fishman, a historian at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a friend of the late Grade.
Lecture 1: “Rediscovering Chaim Grade” with Joseph Berger
Grounded in firsthand reporting for the New York Times, this lecture looks at the controversy surrounding the death of Inna Hecker Grade, the second wife of Chaim Grade, in 2010. Mrs. Grade's fierce protection of her husband's work and reputation effectively closed the door on public discussion of his writing as well as updated translations into English. The unknown future of his estate caused quite a bit of buzz in the Yiddish world, but it quickly became a story of wider public interest in what possibilities there might be for the as-yet unexplored archive of unpublished work.
Lecture 2: “Grade and Young Vilna” with Justin Cammy
In this session, we set the context for Chaim Grade’s emergence as a young Yiddish poet in interwar Vilna. Grade’s sudden rejection of his religious studies and his emergence into the world of secular Yiddish literature was a profound personal transformation that he explored in his pre-war verse, from his maiden volume of philosophical poems Yo (Yes!), to his neo-prophetic cycle Yekhezkel (“Ezekiel”), to his epic poem Musernikes (Musar Students) which was inspired by his own experiences as a yeshiva student. How did Grade draw inspiration from the contrast between the economic poverty he experienced first-hand and the richness of the traditional and secular worlds he now straddled? How did the camaraderie provided to him by his membership in the literary group Yung-Vilne provide structure for his talent by encouraging him to synthesize the concerns of the contemporary moment with respect for Vilna as a traditional center of Jewish culture?
Lecture 3: “Grade and the World of the Yeshiva” with David Fishman
young man, Grade spent several years studying in yeshivas that were part
of the Navaredok musar movement, one of the most extreme forms of
ethical and moral education in interwar Lithuanian
Jewish culture. He also lived and studied with Avrom Yeshaye Karelitz
(known as the Hazon Ish), revered today as one of the spiritual founders
of ultra-Orthodoxy. How did Grade’s intimate knowledge of rabbinic
culture uniquely position him to re-introduce the
world of tradition, spiritual struggle, and doubt into secular Yiddish
literature in such works as The Yeshiva, Di agune (The Agunah), and Der shulhoyf (The Well)? Fishman will explore Grade’s conflicted attitude toward Jewish
tradition and Orthodoxy based on his personal conversations with the author.
Lecture 4: “Grade and the World of Memory” with Justin Cammy and David Fishman
In this joint lecture, Professor Cammy will discuss Grade’s fictional memoir Der mames shabosim (My Mother’s Sabbath Days), a work that concludes with Grade’s return home after the war to a haunted landscape of destruction. Professor Fishman will continue by introducing Froyen fun geto (Women of the Ghetto), a novel that appeared in the Yiddish press but never in book form that asks how it is possible to go on after the destruction of one’s family and community. They will also refer to a few examples of Grade’s work as a post-war poet, an aspect of his career that was overshadowed by his success as a novelist. Fishman, who was a personal friend of Chaim Grade, will talk about how the trauma of the Holocaust molded the author’s personality.